The 'Inevitable' World War

By Robert ZaretskyAugust 4, 2014

The 'Inevitable' World War

Gavrilo Princip on a Serbian wall, 2014; photo by Magyar Hírlap.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the day Britain declared war on Germany.


IT IS, PERHAPS, INEVITABLE that 100 years after the eruption of World War I a great wave of commemorative books and documentaries should now be crashing down upon us. Deluge or Catastrophe; The Month That Changed the World or The War That Ended the Peace; Walking (or maybe just Sleepwalking) Into Hell: as the urgent titles to just a few recent works shout, the Guns of August demand our attention.

Why? We must attend to these distant echoes, we know, because they helped to ignite the current hammering of guns in many parts of the world. To paraphrase Trotsky, even for those of us not interested in World War I, this war nevertheless remains interested in us. As the current bloodletting over borders in East Europe and the Middle East recall, for those fleeing from, or thoughtlessly flying over these parts of the world, World War I is the war that never stops giving.

To be sure, it hasn’t stopped giving for professional and amateur historians. While the number of books published about the Great War lags far behind those devoted to the Good War, publishers see the centenary as the chance to close the gap. Gazing at their weary and worn writers, editors are taking their cue from General Pétain at Verdun: “On les aura!” But the reasons are not just mercenary. The war to end all wars has become the war where most, if not all, historians mark the moment that our world stumbled into modernity. Road signs welcoming motorists to Verdun and Ypres should also welcome them to the 20th century. Deep inside that tortured soil, deep below the ossuaries piled high with countless bones, runs the source of our modern and postmodern lives. It is, as Barbara Tuchman memorably concluded her classic study, the “trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”

As a profession, we have long been caught in this trap, wrestling to free ourselves, our efforts often challenged by our fellow historians who insist we are going about it all wrong. How best to write about the origins of World War I? How best to teach it? As I prepare to teach the war for the first time, these questions weigh on me, not just because the war’s beginnings are so infernally complex, but also because they spur equally infernal questions about intentionality and inevitability.

Inevitability seems inevitable when we discuss World War I: from the Rube Goldberg–like nature of the alliance systems to the grim logic of German, French, and Russian military plans, how could the fateful weeks of July 1914 have ended other than they did? It seems predestined when we gaze at the grainy black-and-white photos of the dramatis personae, portraits that seem to freeze rather than free them as human subjects. The gazes of Edward Grey and Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Nicholas II and Wilhelm II, Raymond Poincaré and Herbert Henry Asquith, all directed slightly over our shoulder, seem fixed on a future they dimly glimpse, but are powerless to avoid. They are world historical deer caught in the headlights of historical fatalism.

Or are they? We need to distinguish among the many varieties of inevitability. There is, of course, the conviction that events could not have turned out other than they did — that 1914 was the ineluctable terminus for the trends and treaties, group mentalities and individual decisions that had been gathering ever since the end of the 19th century. But this was not always the case. From the 1920s to 1960s, a loose consensus reigned among historians that like a toxic and volatile stew that shattered its cauldron, but for which there was no single chef, the war was a tragic accident. This interpretation was demolished by the work of Fritz Fischer, whose book War of Illusions announced that Germany planned for and sought such a war. Elaborating on his earlier, and earthshaking work, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, Fischer argued that war was inevitable ever since 1912, when the so-called German “war cabinet” met and concluded that Germany had to go to war before it was outmatched by Russian troops and hardware.

Widening the Fischerian angle, another German historian, Wolfgang Mommsen, argued that the cascade of crises, from partial mobilizations to regional wars to popular panics since the start of the century, had, by 1914, reached a kind of critical mass. Describing what he calls “a topos of inevitable war,” Mommsen concluded that, by sheer repetition of recurring emergencies, a sense of fatalism had settled on both the principal actors and their populations. War came because most Europeans thought it had to come. John Röhl narrowed the focus of this argument onto a single individual, Wilhelm II. In the just-published final volume to his magisterial biography, Röhl places the smoking gun, fired knowingly and deliberately, in the hands of the “hyperactive and hypersensitive” kaiser. The grandson of Queen Victoria and cousin of Nicholas II and King George V, lover of military uniforms and bizarre pranks, Wilhelm was also Prussia’s “Supreme War Lord, who, having on several occasions beforehand urged the Austrians to attack Serbia, gave the fateful order on 4 July 1914 that led to disaster.”


Fischer’s thesis that the war was sought after by a militaristic and expansionist Germany, as William Mulligan observed in his authoritative The Origins of the First World War, has become the “new orthodoxy.” But over the last few years, these so-called “intentionalists” — closely related, of course, to “inevitabilists” — have been challenged. Taking explicit issue with Mommsen’s claims, Holger Afflerbach underscores what he calls the “topos of improbable war” in the years, months, and weeks leading up to July 1914. Where Mommsen saw a crisis-wracked world expecting war, Afflerbach sees a crisis-prepared world working toward continued peace. Whether one looks at foreign ministries or political parties, newspapers or public opinion, war seemed as credible as unicorns. Afflerbach piles up the remarks of key actors during the July Crisis: few believed in the possibility, much less the imminence, of war. British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith insisted, after the fact, that “war seemed unthinkable to me in that moment,” while Erich von Falkenhayn, who later became the German Army’s Chief of Staff, regretfully noted in 1912 that “war was unthinkable.” Even those who argued, like the Socialists, that war was inevitable were shocked when it finally did happen.

Similarly, in The Month That Changed the World: July 1914, Gordon Martel chalks up all the political movements, cultural trends, and intellectual currents that seemed to make peace, not war, inevitable. The problem, Martel suggests, is that recent historical research

has been carried out in the shadow created by a dark cloud of predeterminism, of profound forces having produced a situation in which war was inevitable, in which what individual human beings said and did between the 28th of June and the 4th of August matters little.

But this is simply wrong, he claims: “It was the choices that men made during those fateful days that plunged the world into a war.”

Christopher Clark also embraces the perspective that war was improbable until it burst into existence. His stunning book The Sleepwalkers has perhaps done to the historiography of World War I what has long been said about the war itself: nothing again will ever be the same. Clark distinguishes between the why and how of 1914: whereas the former transforms political actors into “mere executors of forces long established and beyond their control,” the latter focuses on the “sequences of interactions that produce certain outcomes.” In a word, when we ask how, not why, we assume the historical actors were precisely that: individuals who acted on events. Time and again, Clark pauses his spellbinding narrative to recall that it is only after the fact that his story seems inevitable. “The immense denouement of 1914 seems to us to command the horizons of the preceding decade. Yet the reality is that it does so only in our eyes, which is to say: in retrospect.”

The debate sparked by The Sleepwalkers has caused historians to revisit long-held assumptions about the causes of the war, as well as reconsidering, as writers and teachers, the very notion of inevitability. Of course, this is the very last thing we wish to tackle, given the existing complexities of the years 1914–1918. (So complex that Clark begins his pointillist account in 1903, with the murders in Belgrade of King Alexandar and Queen Draga at the hands of fanatical Serbian nationalists — the very same milieu that would subsequently spawn the likes of Gavrilo Princip.) The web of alliances, secret and public; the mix of personalities, from czars and kings to foreign ministers and ambassadors; the brew of nationalities and languages, bristling with guns and glyphs: it is a wonder we can ever make it to the fateful events in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Is it possible, though, that when it comes to agency, these historians are protesting too much? That, rather like Houdini snapping on a growing number of shackles and locks in order to make his escape all the more improbable, these historians rattle off all manner of contrary trends in order to make the outbreak of war seem no less improbable?


What do we mean by inevitability? There is, of course, the kind of historical inevitability touted by old-fashioned Marxist historians and even-older-fashioned Whig historians. In his classic essay “Historical Inevitability,” Isaiah Berlin circles around the belief that history follows laws as ironclad as those governing the physical universe: “Men do as they do, and think as they think, largely as a function of the inevitable evolution of the ‘class’ as a whole.” For such historians, the “more inevitable an event or an action or a character can be exhibited as being, the better it has been understood [and] the nearer we are to the one embracing, ultimate truth.”

Of course, in the 60 years since Berlin wrote the essay, the claims of Marxism have become as dated as the wax of Wilhelm’s moustache. But there nevertheless remains, Berlin would reply, the residue of historical determinism in the very language of historians. Teleological assumptions, Berlin noted, enter

however unconsciously, into the thought and language of those who speak of the “rise” and “fall” of states or movements or classes or individuals as if they obeyed some irresistible rhythm, a rising or falling wave of some cosmic river, an ebb or tide in human affairs, subject to natural or supernatural laws […] Teleology is a form of faith.

The teleological fallacy is the historical profession’s original sin, one that we can never fully exorcise or escape. As the historian and philosopher of history Herbert Butterfield warned: “The study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history.” Rather than import the present into the past, the historian is duty-bound to haul the past, intact and authentic, into the present. But how reasonable is such insistence? Not very, perhaps, when we recall that Butterfield, who sounded the epistemological alarm in his seminal The Whig Interpretation of History, went on to write The Englishman and his History, a baldly Whiggish manifesto on the historical greatness of the English nation. (That he wrote the second book during World War II explains, though does not excuse, this lapse.)

In 1953, the year Berlin gave the lecture that became “Historical Inevitability,” the English novelist L. P. Hartley published his novel The Go-Between, best remembered today for its opening line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Paradoxically, the past’s foreignness, its utter otherness, is that we know what its inhabitants did not and could not know: what the future held in store for them. But this paradox is also our prison: given our knowledge of what had not yet befallen these historical actors, how can we do their pasts justice? How can we ever truly know them, ever fully empathize with them, given this brute fact? Even in this essay, my thoughtless use of words like “fateful” only illustrates the unbridgeable gap between then and now.

Of course, this is a problem endemic to the entire historical profession, not just those who work on World War I. Yet, given the primordial role played by the war in world history, those who specialize in the period 1914–1918, and find it has parallels with our own age, find the problem especially worrisome. It spurs Clark to lament how in too many books on the war “causes trawled from the length and breadth of Europe’s pre-war decades are piled like weights on the scale until it tilts from probability to inevitability.” As a result, “contingency, choice and agency are squeezed out of the field of vision.” Similarly, in her recent book The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan protests: “It is easy to throw up one’s hands and say the Great War was inevitable, but that is dangerous thinking, especially in a time like our own which in some ways, not all, resembles that vanished world of the years before 1914.”

The trick, perhaps beyond any Houdini of the historical profession, is to avoid what the French philosopher Henri Bergson called “the illusion of retrospective determinism.” One popular strategy of late, particularly in Great Britain, is counterfactual history. Several years ago, the historian Niall Ferguson edited a volume of essays titled Virtual History. His introductory essay opens — inevitably? — with the question “What if?” His contributors apply the question, with varying degrees of success, to a range of historical episodes, while Ferguson applies it to his own essay on World War I. What if, Ferguson wonders, Great Britain had not entered the war, instead allowing Germany to deliver its devastating one-two punch to France and Russia? What would have changed between now and then? Ferguson’s answer is “Not much” — apart, that is, from the useless deaths of tens of millions of soldiers and civilians during those four years, and the harrowing geopolitical consequences that followed. Europe would more or less resemble today’s Europe, in which a powerful and confident Germany oversees a transnational system that suspiciously looks like the European Union.

If you want a happy ending, Orson Welles once said, that depends on where you stop the story. In the case of counterfactual history, it depends instead on where you start it: almost always at a pivotal moment that, with a bit of historical imagination, you swivel away from the direction it actually took. The odd thing about most counterfactual histories, the historian Richard Evans acerbically observes, is that they mostly do have happy endings. Rather than asking “what if,” most of these historians, in particular Ferguson, are instead lamenting “only if.” In his recently published Altered Pasts, Evans acknowledges that “embedded counterfactuals” — realistic options available to a particular individual at a specific moment — are essential to a full retelling of the past. The problem, for Evans, is that some historians heave into their retellings of the past counterfactuals that run counter to the grain of history. For example, Ferguson makes too little of the virulence of anti-Semitism in prewar Germany, or Wilhelm’s own anti-Semitic beliefs. Rather than offering an escape from the epistemological and narrative limits of history writing, such narratives instead become little more than exercises in wishful thinking. (In a recent article, it is worth noting, the diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder employs such limited counterfactuals and concludes that war, far from improbable, was in fact inevitable.)

The German philosopher Reinhart Koselleck coined the notion of “horizon of expectation” to identify the inevitable cultural and cognitive limits imposed on historical actors. They were free, but only within the range allowed by conceptual shackles specific to their time and place. At the end of the day, this very same horizon both opens and closes the narrative possibilities to present-day historians of World War I. We cannot rid ourselves of knowing the ending to this particular story’s beginning: it is always already there.

But, I tell myself, this predicament, while inevitable, is also essential to our work as historians. How could we tell a compelling story for our readers and students if we didn’t know the ending? J. H. Hexter famously used the example of the 1951 National League pennant race to illustrate this problem: “Unless the writer has the outcome in mind as he writes the story, he will not know how to adapt the proportions of his story to the actual historical tempo.” In other words, Bobby Thomson’s shot heard ’round the world dictates our storytelling with the same urgency as does Gavrilo Princip’s shot heard ’round the world.


This is the first of a two-part article.


Robert Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor, and the author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. 

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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